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Candidates Blair and Owens stand side by side at an event.
Candidates Blair and Owens

The results are in. Tuesday night, Blair and Owens secured the only remaining seats of a seven person board dominated by staunch traditionalists. The moment feels euphoric, but it’s the kind of feeling that only comes after a dark, senseless struggle. It’s been a long three years since the onslaught of dismissive, divisive culture wars disrupted our community, since we stopped talking with each other and started talking past each other, since political voices drowned out educators.

Ken Gontarz, President, Francis Howell Families, speaks to his supporters.
Ken Gontarz, President, Francis Howell Families

The 2021-2022 school year brought pointing fingers, shouting voices, and angry crowds to our school board meetings. Francis Howell Families, a political action committee (PAC), formed that year, with the guidance of seasoned, out-of-state strategists. The new group, bolstered by large donations from key members, lobbed exaggerated accusations of financial waste, false claims about academic decline, and sharp criticism of anti-discrimination initiatives. And then April brought the election of Families’ two-person slate, legitimizing their cause. Those candidates, Mr. Bertrand and Mr. Cook, now serve respectively as the President and Vice President of the FHSD school board.

With school board elections cycling every year in Missouri, the 2022-2023 school year brought another three seats up for election.  FHFamilies supported a three-person slate, and the political rhetoric ramped up. Too late, four moms who had seen the writing on the wall during the Cook/Bertrand campaign, formed the Francis Howell Forward PAC in an effort to counter Families’ clear political agenda. That April, the Forward slate—an incumbent, a consistently involved parent, and a project manager for a Fortune 500 company—was rejected by the voters. Weary, we wrote a concession post pleading for unity and calling for action

Soon the new board majority, now dubbed the FHSD5, went to work. They rejected or questioned important resource updates for students and travel funds for teacher training and then drew national attention when they rescinded the Resolution Against Racism and Discrimination. That summer, Francis Howell Forward signs could be seen in headlines across the country. In the months that followed, our organization would partner with other leaders to mobilize parents, grandparents, and students alike. Over and over, we called, “#StandUpFHSD” and “Place #EducationOverPolitics.

We rallied speakers and canvassers and built an online following. Month after month, as new FHSD5 policies graced the agenda, Forward leveraged every tool they could—social media, our website, and media outreach—to keep a bright light on the FHSD5’s partisan agenda. When December came, and elective Black History and Literature courses were on the line, something in our district shifted. 

NAACP Leaders sit in the audience at the July Board of Education. The audience holds signs that say "Forward, not backward." and #StandUpFHSD
NAACP Leaders attend the July 2023 Board of Education meeting

Our volunteer ranks swelled, our fundraiser doubled in attendance, and our inbox stayed full. When the time came, we endorsed strong candidates. Blair and Owens attended board meetings, school events, and too many Meet and Greets to count. Together, with other organizations like Saint Charles County Families for Public Schools, our local education association, and countless, determined volunteers, we laid everything on the line to hold onto the remaining two seats on our school board. Volunteers stood outside over 20 schools for parent conferences and knocked nearly 10,000 doors. Now the voters have spoken (just about 1,500 more compared to last year and still just an unofficial estimate of only 22%). In the end, the FHForward lead candidate picked up 2,215 votes, while the FHFamilies leader dropped 1,109. We won. 

But the FHForward leadership wants to be very, very clear. No one is really “winning.” While our society is grappling with significant social changes, while we face tough questions about what inclusion and equality really look like, we are failing to ask some of the most important questions of all: How do we break the cycle of partisan culture wars? How do we teach our children to honor the dignity of any person in any position along a traditional vs. progressive spectrum? 

Francis Howell Forward candidates and volunteers gather for a group photo at the Tuesday night watch party.
Francis Howell Forward candidates and volunteers at the Tuesday night watch party.

In the coming weeks, our new board members will have much to learn. Directors Blair and Owens will still be a 2-person minority on a 7-person board, where every one of the FHSD5 was endorsed by Francis Howell Families PAC and the same political party.* They will have to be both bold and kind, firm and flexible. And Francis Howell Forward? As we build for the next cycle and prepare to support candidates who will put students first, we’ll keep having the awkward conversations we called for last year—in our homes, on the school grounds, at our bus stops, and on our neighbors’ doorsteps. And we’ll keep getting better at having these awkward conversations until #EducationOverPolitics is our new reality, and we all, Families and Forward members alike, break the cycle of partisan culture wars and find our common ground. FHFoward is here for the long haul; we pledge our energy and resources to protect our public schools, uplift voices of our most vulnerable, and unify our community. And we invite you to join us!

*Republican party endorsements came with $3500 each for Directors Bertrand and Cook and $1000 each for Directors Puszkar, Harmon, and Ponder.


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